RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Proponents of organized labor are urging Virginia lawmakers to build on recent changes to the state’s labor laws, but a divided General Assembly and Republican-led state government are raising concerns about protecting those gains.
Virginia has a long history of anti-labor laws on the books. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that local governments do not have the authority to negotiate contracts with their employees, a decision that nullified all contracts between unions and local governments at the time. The court gave way to the General Assembly to approve such contracts, but the Virginia legislature banned the contracts in 1993.
But for the first time in decades, local governments in Virginia can now bargain collectively with public employee unions. Democrats voted to lift the state’s longstanding union ban on public sector workers, which include teachers, law enforcement and firefighters, when the party held full control of state government.
Senate Democrats have been unable to agree on a mandate or collective bargaining at the state level, leaving key public officials out of the process, union members say.
On Tuesday, January 18, members of the United Campus Workers of Virginia (UCWVA), a “Wall-to-Wall Connection” organizing for all public college and university employees in Virginia, held a rally in front of the Capitol and met with legislators to push for an extension of the law to all public state employees.
Speakers at the rally began with chants of “Union Rights! Democratic Rights!” and the singing of “Solidarity Forever,” a classic pro-labor and union anthem, to the nearly two dozen supporters who braved the cold outside the clock tower in Capitol Square. At Tuesday’s rally, however, the speakers’ personal stories took center stage.
Carmen Wright, a graduate student at the University of Virginia (UVA), spoke about the ongoing work of nursing and medical students on the frontlines of the pandemic and how college graduates and faculty are spending their time supporting schools, professors, students and K-12 -Training.
“Yet, Virginia’s more than 40,000 student assistants remain undervalued, underpaid and misunderstood,” Wright told the crowd. “Most of my colleagues earn less than a living wage. Many lack adequate health care from our employers.”
How universities have relied on their graduate students during the pandemic underscores how important they are in the Commonwealth, Wright said, and should make way for them to be allowed to negotiate their contracts. They added that low wages have prompted some of their colleagues to go without food at times.
Two universities have unionized under the UCWVA since 2020, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and UVA.
Jon Rajkovich, associate professor at VCU, told the crowd that while he enjoys the start of a semester and the students he teaches, he associates his employment with “getting ripped off”.
He spoke of low pay and a lack of financial security, saying that associate professors at VCU were on semester-by-semester contracts, and claimed that many would be unemployed when students were on vacation because they weren’t getting paid.
Adjunct professors at the VCU have been demanding higher salaries and better benefits for years because the basic salary per credit is not enough. While the university has increased base pay, VCU has limited associate professors to teaching two classes per semester. Those who teach a full load, three classes per semester, are also eligible for contracts with benefits, according to the VCU.
In addition to allowing public sector collective bargaining for all Virginia employees, the UCWVA wants changes to ensure there is a regular cost-of-living adjustment for all government employees, particularly at higher education institutions located in communities with rising housing prices.
The UCWVA also calls for access to free and affordable tuition, especially for students living in communities where rents are rising, and for companies to close tax loopholes to fund their goals. For this effort, UCWVA members have spoken to state legislators about their appetite for their ideas.
State Senator Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield), a former student and professor at Reynolds Community College, spoke at Tuesday’s rally about the long history of workers fighting unjust exploitation.
“During each session of this General Assembly, we define our values as a Commonwealth. We have the chance to show the gaps in our social and economic structures. We develop budgets that underline our priorities and we articulate the aspirations for a better and fairer society,” Hashmi said.
“We don’t always succeed, as we all know, but it’s very important that you’re here. that we are here together Your presence and your voice let my colleagues know that fair and equitable representation of our workers is absolutely necessary.”
Hashmi also referred to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose life was celebrated across the country on Monday, and said he stands firm on union and workers’ rights.
“We honor his legacy, not by repeating his quotes, but by realizing his vision of a fairer and fairer society,” she told the crowd.
Whether any of the UCWVA’s goals can be achieved in the split legislature is unclear, but Gov. Glenn Youngkin and other Republicans have been strong advocates of so-called right-to-work laws that prevent unions from forcing workers to join unions and pay their dues as a condition of their employment. The law effectively weakens unions, and efforts to repeal it have been thwarted by bipartisan votes.
According to Pew Research Center polls, Republicans and Democrats have grown further apart in their views of unions over the years, but most Americans believe they have a positive impact on the country.
“We are realistic about the current General Assembly and were very disappointed with the election in November. However, we are very pleased to be here today and to speak with lawmakers for the rest of the week to lay the groundwork and lay the groundwork for building these types of changes,” says Cecelia Parks, member of the UCWVA-UVA- management committee, WFXR’s sister station WRIC said on Tuesday.
Parks said the original legislation that allowed collective bargaining for all public employees was “eviscerated” in the Virginia Senate in 2020, forcing unions to seek individual locality permits.
“The intent was to weaken workers’ rights. Instead of having a big fight for all public sector workers to get the right to collective bargaining, it has to happen now in Richmond, and then it has to happen in Charlottesville and then Albemarle County,” Parks said.
She added that the approved bill does not provide for strict enforcement measures and does not specifically include student workers. While the UCWVA believes more can be done, Parks welcomed the changes introduced across the Commonwealth after the measure was passed and came into force in May 2021.
In December, the Richmond School Board voted 8-1 to make RPS teachers the first in the state to have collective bargaining rights to negotiate their contracts. Despite these successes, state legislators who support organized labor recognize that newly empowered Republicans pose a threat to these efforts.
“Certainly it is a tough fight. We’re going to play a lot of defense to make sure some of the advances we’ve made on workers’ rights are defended,” Del said. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) after the rally opposite WFXR’s sister station.
So far in the legislature, Republicans have proposed measures that would ensure the right to work remains in place. A bill by Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) would allow independent bargaining by public officials working in a locality that has enacted an ordinance allowing collective bargaining.
The measure would prevent agreements between a union and an employer from applying to non-members. Freitas’ office did not respond to WRIC’s request for an interview on Wednesday 19 January.
A bill by state senator Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham) for the 2022 legislature would repeal provisions requiring contractors and subcontractors on a public contract to pay an applicable rate of wages and require bidders to commit to project labor contracts for public works projects to keep . The proposed law would also remove the provision allowing a locality to recognize any union as a negotiator.